The Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture (ACI) (Ghana) is committed to “training Christian workers and leaders for effective mission in the African Context.”, ACI trains both clergy and lay people from different denominations and diverse educational and professional backgrounds. The Institute endeavours to build a community of prayer and study in the pursuit of rigorous scholarship of Christian African experience. The Bible is read, mostly in African heart languages, and understood against a background of cross-cultural encounters in Christian history, African pre-Christian (primal) traditions, and the realities of contemporary African life. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, teaching and community life happened face-to-face. This practice had to go online during 2020. Because that situation is so recent, assessment of the pandemic’s long-term impact on theological education at ACI is still preliminary. Yet we can say that the Covid-19 pandemic brought awareness of the benefits and challenges of using technology to build a community of learning. For many institutions, including ACI, challenges have involved rethinking the structure, content, and delivery of curricula to maintain core foundational values and to achieve the goal of formation.
The Akrofi Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture (ACI) has a unique approach to theological formation that explicitly applies examples from early, Graeco-Roman Christianity to the contemporary African context by integrating worship with daily communal life, promoting lifelong learning, and offering Christian teaching through African vernacular languages and cultures. This article will explore ACI’s approach to formation by discussing ACI’s key historical model, the primary traits of ACI’s community, and specific practices at ACI. It will conclude by touching briefly on the impact of the pandemic.
History of ACI
The Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture (ACI) is a research university located in Akropong-Akuapem, a district capital for Akuapem State in eastern Ghana, about 45 km (28 miles) from Ghana’s capital city, Accra. ACI’s site was originally the location of the Basel Mission Seminary, founded in 1848 (now the Presbyterian College of Education), and a missionary residence. The Basel Mission’s primary concerns – building a Christian community and educating in a system that uses indigenous languages – have continued in ACI since its official establishment in 1987 (initially as the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre for Mission Research and Applied Theology, or ACMC). The founding director (and later rector) of ACI was the late Rev Prof Kwame Bediako, who, together with his wife, Professor Gillian M. Bediako, shared their vision of a mission study centre with a Presbyterian minister, Rev S. K. Aboa. He incidentally also nurtured a desire for a language library centre. ACI’s current rector is Rev Prof Benhardt Y. Quarshie. (I wish to acknowledge feedback from Profs Quarshie and G. M. Bediako in the final preparation of this paper.)
ACI is named after two people who worked on the Akuapem Twi language in their missionary, pastoral, and educational endeavours: the Swiss-German Johannes Gottlieb Christaller (1827-1895) and the Ghanaian Clement Anderson Akrofi (1901-1967). ACI seeks to promote African innovation and excellence in “the study and documentation of Christian history, thought and life in Ghana and in Africa as a whole, in relation to their African setting and to world Christianity …. [and] to strengthen Christian witness in the modern Africa and world context through Christian scholarship.” The vision of ACI, “training Christian workers and leaders (clergy and laity) for effective mission in the African Context,” means that it is open to Christians from different confessional traditions.
ACI focuses on three pillars: research, accredited programmes, and continuing education or lifelong learning. Six research centres have unique but related interests within these pillars. These are the Centre for Interfaith Studies and Engagement in Africa (CISEA), Centre for Gospel and Culture Engagement (CEGACE), Centre for Primal and Christian Spirituality (CEPACS), Centre for the Study of Early African Christianity (CESEAC), Centre for the Interpretation and Translation of the Bible in African Languages (CITBAL), and Centre for Religion, the Environment, Science and Development (CRESAD).
ACI has four accredited (post)graduate degree programmes: Master of Arts in Theology and Mission, offered with emphases in Biblical studies, leadership, world Christianity, holistic mission and development, Pentecostal studies, the Bible and science, and mother tongue theology; Master of Theology in African Christianity; Master of Theology in Bible translation and interpretation; and Doctor of Philosophy in theology. In the 2021/2022 academic year, ACI had ninety-three students. Students have come from nineteen African countries, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, South Korea, and Australia.
ACI is committed to sharing lessons with and drawing from the experiences of Christians at the grassroots level, as it did before its accreditation, through mission conferences and workshops (Bediako 2013, 941). Currently, six-day certificate programmes with online lectures are offered as part of these continuing education efforts for equipping the wider Christian public. Each programme has three levels of engagement: basic, intermediate, and advanced. Current concentrations are in Christian Mission and Evangelism; Christian-Muslim Relations; African Christian Creation Care Studies; and Leadership and Witness in the Public Sphere (jointly with the Institute for Christian Impact (ICI), directed by an alumnus). ACI’s public engagement includes annual lectures, such as the Kwame Bediako Memorial Lecture and the Asante-Opoku-Reindorf lecture, jointly organised with the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences.
While the (post)graduate degree programmes require some academic qualifications, the certificate programmes do not have such requirements, apart from the ability to communicate in English. They therefore have a broader reach. The MA requires a degree in any academic field and reaches Christian professionals. However, student intakes have sometimes been low, partly due to national economic challenges that prevent otherwise interested people from paying fees. The hope remains that churches or para-church organisations in Ghana and Africa will continue to support students to benefit from theological formation at ACI.
A Historical Model for African Theological Formation
ACI’s approach to theological formation has some historical antecedents in early Christianity and was informed largely by the learning of Kwame Bediako and his doctoral advisor, Andrew F. Walls, both of whom were scholars of Christian missions. They had special interest in early Christianity. To help readers understand ACI’s approach as developed by Bediako and Walls, I summarize one example of theological formation from the early Graeco-Roman Christian context.
The catechetical school in Alexandria (Egypt) was notable among several Christian efforts at theological formation in the Graeco-Roman world. The school’s teachers and students prepared themselves to address “questions often prompted by Greek assumptions or established intellectual [and religious] traditions” (Walls 2013, 4) from both Christians and non-Christians in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria. To serve the early church, Graeco-Roman Christian theology sought to give Christian answers to the intellectual and religious questions of its environment. This primarily involved expounding the Scriptures (in Greek), but teachers also endeavoured to employ all available resources in the Hellenistic culture. For example, one of the school’s early leaders, Clement of Alexandria, indicated that as he wrote one of his books, he did not shy away from “what is best in [Greek] philosophy and other preparatory instruction” (Clement Strom., 1.1; 15,3.). The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, together with the New Testament in the same language, helped Clement to engage Greek traditions for his Christian interests. At ACI, this long legacy of Christian engagement with local culture continues through the emphasis on teaching and reading Scripture in African heart languages so that students will then be equipped to deal with the real, day-to-day challenges of their culture(s).
The interactions between Gregory Thaumaturgus and Origen hint at ACI’s present-day community life. Gregory met Origen, Clement’s successor, outside Alexandria in Caesarea (Palestine). Gregory saw Origen as a teacher who persuaded his students not only with words but also in character and actions, giving his “exhortation by deeds before he gave it in words” (Gregory, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, 11). Origen’s consistent Christian character set him apart and implicitly critiqued some contemporary Greek philosophers whose practices contradicted their teachings (Gregory, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen,10). Following this pattern, ACI’s community life of learning, worshiping and even having meals together fosters holistic formation and opportunities for teachers and students to experience each other outside the classroom, something we learn from early Christian history and which ACI seeks to be deliberate about.
A Community of Conversation, Worship, and Cultural Awareness
Bediako translated this early Christian heritage for the African context by developing a model with four areas (Bediako 2001, 30): First, the need to discern the “signs of the times” (in this case, the historical significance of African Christianity); second, Africa’s historical and contemporary context; third, the “history and tradition” of the Christian movement, and fourth, the need to maintain “a mind for mission and transformation.” As these areas each emphasize dialogue between Christianity and culture, they echo the early Christians’ practice of using Graeco-Roman languages and concepts to communicate Christian truth.
These overlapping areas are themselves bound together by three dimensions: First, the experience of the living God; second, a sense of participation in the Bible regarded as a context, and third, the practice of spirituality. Again, as Origen practiced Christian integration of teaching and character, these dimensions emphasize real-world expressions of true faith. Thus, whether in research, lectures, seminar presentations, or symposia, staff and students are expected to relate present Christian experience to historic Christianity in order to advance Christ’s Kingdom transformation in Africa.
Three examples illustrate how ACI sustains Bediako’s model. First, maintaining a community of learners, where faculty and students see each other as life-long learners in the nurturing of “Christian scholarship in Africa for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Walls 2018, 5-6), is paramount for ACI. So, at ACI, teacher and student are both learners, and lingering classroom discussions are usually continued during snack breaks or at the cafeteria during meals. This practice helps ACI’s community members pursue ACI’s value of “mutual caring and concern, appreciation of each other’s varied gifts, and openness to learn from one another in the service of Jesus Christ, the Lord.” Students and faculty share an integrated community life of prayer for one another at devotion times, work, and study.
In addition, communal worship has a fundamental role at ACI. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, each day started with Bible reading and prayers. Expository preaching occurred during some class sessions. In the late afternoon, a prayer time ended the day. During Covid-19, community devotions were held online on Wednesday mornings. ACI resumed daily morning devotions as of January 2023. These communal devotions remind staff and students of the need to maintain unity of mind and heart and of the vital connection between spirituality and the pursuit of and application of knowledge in service to God. Without a communal life that intentionally integrates worship, curriculum has the tendency to be fragmented (Farley 1983). Thus, within its character as a research institution, ACI endeavours to remain an “academic and pastoral” community, a “Christian ashram” (Walls 2000, 4), in which the training of Christian workers and leaders can be most effective. Work and worship flow together in each day’s activities.
Finally, context is important for formation; any curriculum must wrestle with that. In line with this fact, Bediako’s convictions guide ACI’s curriculum design. Bediako urged that a new African theological formation should take seriously “what is actually happening with African Christianity” as well as “African realities” and seek to produce an “integration of heart and mind, learning and discipleship” (Bediako 2001, 30). Such new African formation should not uncritically follow the Western Christian experience. Thus, for the Christian theologically trained in Africa, the way to effective ministry is a creative integration of the experience of God with African cultural (including primal religious) heritage. Course contents are structured so that components deal with Christian spirituality and their connection with primal context in the Old and New Testaments, in Africa, and in the history of Christian mission, particularly in Europe. For example, the Master of Arts course on spirituality traverses the Psalms, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and Celtic and Akan primal spirituality, while the course on Gospel and culture highlights ongoing interactions between traditional practices, such as widowhood rites and chieftaincy, and Christian teaching. Master of Theology students are required to observe and report on the Odwira traditional festival of the people of Akropong-Akuapem as part of their research methods class.
In particular, vernacular formation is one primary avenue to help students engage with their cultural heritage. While lectures are officially held in English, students are encouraged to share mother tongue perspectives during class discussions. The mother tongue Bible is a requirement in all Biblical courses. ACI encourages students to worship and learn in their mother tongues because African Christians continue to operate in their mother tongues. Therefore, fully-formed African Christians must be ready to encourage fruitful interactions with indigenous Christian theologies in their own languages. ACI helps MTh and PhD students to practice this by requiring them to provide a one-page abstract of their final thesis or dissertation in their mother tongue. A fundamental rationale in requiring a mother tongue abstract of a dissertation or thesis is to emphasise the importance of being able to communicate research findings to your local community. Some students and alumni have indeed confessed that they rediscovered their mother tongue while at ACI, with some even getting a copy of their mother tongue Bible for the first time.
ACI thus seeks to model a Christian learning community that is mindful of, and communicates with, other contexts, primarily through the creative use of the mother tongue in theological reflections. Preaching, praying, and worshipping in a diversity of languages enriches theological formation. Continuing to explore how to expand mother tongue theological education may be a future creative challenge for ACI.
An Integrated Formation Process
Faculty, student, and staff commitment to the formation process is crucial. In other words, commitment to community life at ACI is a shared responsibility; this fact informs the process of staff and student recruitment.
During the admissions process, prospective students share a brief writeup of their “Christian experience,” from which admissions officers may ask further questions during admission interviews. Hence, decisions to admit students rely both on academic qualifications and the potential of Christian growth and impact. New students then go through an orientation that reinforces the importance of Christian experience. This orientation also gives them an opportunity to experience community life at ACI. For example, during orientation, a session on “Study as a Spiritual Discipline” reminds students of the nature of theological pursuit as a lifelong intellectual and spiritual endeavour.
For faculty and admitted students, the office of Dean of Students and Chaplain facilitates community devotions and retreats, a prayer calendar, tutorial groups, and counselling. Tutorial groups are each headed by a faculty member who acts as a cell group leader (for students in accredited degree programmes). Cell groups provide further pastoral care. As mentioned above, faculty are available for informal discussion during meals. Communal devotions and faculty availability facilitate the “formal and informal learning of spirituality [that] is embedded in the context of shared lives” (Naidoo 2013, 757).
Because ACI is a research institution, supervision of student essays, dissertations, and theses is key in our formation process. A student may be supervised by up to three faculty members (at least one fulltime member and adjuncts), especially at the doctoral level. Supervisors are expected to offer not only academic guidance but to be sensitive to students’ spiritual growth through frequent in-person or online video meetings and correspondence. In addition, co-supervision of students is an avenue for faculty mentorship, as younger colleagues learn from senior colleagues in the supervision process.
On that topic, faculty development at the personal and institutional levels is crucial. ACI’s distinctive approach to curriculum development and delivery has meant that faculty come from a very limited pool. Indeed, right now, about ninety percent of fulltime faculty are ACI’s own alumni. To some extent, this fact facilitates “their fit within institutional culture” and contribution to “institutional well-being” as “institutional citizens” (Tiénou 2018). In this way, the students get to experience the ACI approach to theological formation through the research and teaching of ACI alumni lecturers. Non-ACI alumni lecturers, who certainly share the ACI ethos, usually co-teach or co-supervise students.
Creating and maintaining a community life as imperative for formation requires intentionality. Collegiality for a pastoral research institute such as ACI is in the creative symbiotic experience of staff and students who are indeed invited to participate in its vision and mission. Commitment to the formation process necessarily requires accountability, and for that matter periodic review of processes. On the topic of accountability, as an accredited institution, ACI is periodically assessed by the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission (GTEC) for accreditation renewal. Internal review of institutional processes is managed by a quality assurance unit. External examiners review assessments of student work.
The Pandemic and Technology
During the pandemic, ACI partially closed, following the national lockdown and the closing of Ghana’s borders in March 2020. Lectures were suspended. Eventually, the Google workspace, particularly Google Classroom, enabled ACI to move instruction online. Most Ghanaian students stayed away from ACI’s campus, but international students remained.
Before the pandemic, ACI did not offer any courses online. Courses were designed to be offered in person, as intensives in some cases. Therefore, faculty and students needed orientation on the use of technology. Initially, to help accommodate some students’ unstable internet connections, faculty pre-recorded their lectures as audio-only files and posted them to Google Classroom. Students were expected to listen and make notes so that they could then participate in a video class discussion with the lecturer. This format limited contact time between faculty and students.
After reviewing this online lecture delivery and participation format, ACI decided to hold lectures online for full two-hour sessions, without any pre-recording. This switch has improved lecturer-student contact hours. For MTh/PhD classes, however, participants shared concern that the volume of course content and the attention required for fruitful interaction favours in-person delivery – especially because courses had originally been designed for in-person learning, and because now ACI has returned to delivering these courses in-person but with an online option for those who cannot be physically present. Some student presentations are now done in a hybrid mode.
Since the pandemic, WhatsApp groups facilitate communication among faculty and between faculty and students. Though lectures and supporting documents have not been offered via WhatsApp, these chats have nonetheless helped in facilitating an online community, as members post supplementary resources, notices for events, etc. Maintaining community life continues to pose challenges for ACI.
Access to library resources also had its challenges during the pandemic. Course materials that were hitherto given in print had to be scanned and made available to students online. The library helped students by scanning materials needed for their research. Some students subscribed to online journals outside the Institute, but ACI needs to do further work to make digital resources readily available to all students and faculty.
During the pandemic, ACI, like other Majority World theological institutions, had to use technology creatively to survive. Online education in general has come to stay following the pandemic. Because of ACI’s unique emphasis on communal formation, some form of online theological education that does not undermine such an ethos remains an option even though it has reopened for in-person interaction. Technology remains part of ACI’s collective experience and an avenue for potential future development.
ACI offers an ongoing model of contextualized theological education. It attempts a holistic theological training that primarily aims at transformation and scholarship in the service of the Church in Africa. A community of integrated learning, worship, and attentiveness to vernacular contexts is key. The use of mother tongues in teaching and scholarship fosters the Gospel’s continuing engagement with traditional and contemporary realities in Africa.
The disruptions brought by the Covid-19 pandemic were navigated through creative use of available technology. That situation raised questions for ACI’s planning. For example, what options exist for pursuing hybrid theological education or even full-fledged online courses? For now, ACI continues to consider how to balance in-person and online education in ways that maintain its distinctive communal approach.
Author Bio: Rudolf K. Gaisie (PhD) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture, Akropong-Akuapem, Ghana. He serves as the Director of ICT and the Institute’s Centre for the Study of Early African Christianity (CESEAC). He is also a fellow at the Center of Early African Christianity (CEAC), New Haven, CT, USA. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of early Graeco-Roman and North African Christianity, gospel and culture, mother tongue Biblical studies, African Christian leadership, and technology in theological education. His doctoral thesis, Jesus Christ as Logos Incarnate and Resurrected Nana (Ancestor): An African Perspective on Conversion and Christology was published in 2020 with a foreword by Anthony O. Balcomb.
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